Book For Congo Watchers

April 23, 2009

As a more-than-interested observer of events in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I found Gerard Prunier’s Africa’s World War a worthwhile if dense expression of one man’s opinions about an incredibly complex chapter in the continent’s history. Is it rife with supposition, self-serving sources, and subjective interpretation of events? Certainly. But that’s the nature of the conflict, so readers expecting a black-hat-white-hat cast of good guys and bad guys are going to be dismissive of the work if not outraged at the author’s audacity to present it as history. I suspect this is as close to an actual history of this period as we’re ever going to see.

What I found particularly useful was Prunier’s run down of the multitude of nations involved in the two wars. The roles played by everyone from Libya to South Africa are examined in sometimes mind-numbing detail. The whys and wherefores of each player’s participation are by necessity speculative; the Angolan military doesn’t have much in the way of neat regimental histories posted on the Web to use as sources and neither Yoweri Museveni or Paul Kagame are known for giving lengthy confessional interviews. Still, if you approach the material with patience and several grains of salt, you can come away with a better understanding of how the conflict in Congo was shaped by numerous outside forces.

It should be noted that this isn’t light, recreational reading. I studied the DRC for five years as I was researching my novel Heart of Diamonds and I still found it essential to refer to Prunier’s list of abbreviations and glossary time and time again. The sheer number of acronyms is enough to slow comprehension to a crawl, but again, this is no more than an accurate portrait of a 15-year conflict where six men with an RPG can declare themselves a rebel militia, take over a village, and eventually sit down at the negotiating table with representatives from several sovereign countries and the United Nations before splitting up to join opposing armies where they start the process all over again. Any account of alliances in Congo reads like alphabet soup in a blender.

Prunier could have provided a little more specficity and clarity about two big topics. One was the role the United States played (and plays) in the Congo wars. With his somewhat fragmented organizational approach, it was difficult to piece together what we did to whom and who did what to us. America’s hands have come away soiled every time we lay them on Congo (dating to our rush to be the first country in the world to endorse King Leopold’s bold claim to own the nation), and I would have liked a more detailed account of what happened and when we did it during the period covered by the book.

The other is Rwanda’s major involvement in the game. Prunier certainly provides an exhaustive account of the genocide’s aftermath and how it played out in the eastern provinces of the DRC, but the big picture seemed to have been obscured by the details. Maybe my mind was dulled by slogging through account after account of what was happening to the refugees and which ones were the good Tutsis and which ones where the bad Tutsis, but I have to say I didn’t come away from the book with a clear understanding of what Prunier thinks Kagame really hopes to accomplish.

Those looking for a simple definitive account of war in Congo had best look elsewhere, but readers who are sophisticated enough to take one man’s observations and opinions and weigh them accordingly will find Africa’s World War a useful addition to the shelf.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the


Earth Day Makes Congo Matter

April 22, 2009

While the eyes of most journalists and activists are focused on the mineral riches of the Democratic Republic of Congo, another of the country’s assets is being exploited with consequences that will be felt far beyond the center of Africa. It’s the forest that covers 45% of the nation–the second largest tropical rainforest in the world. Properly managed and developed, the Congo’s timber could be a perpetually-renewable resource that provides jobs, fuel, and food for millions of Congolese while it continues to give the rest of the world cleaner air and combats the effects of global warming. At the rate it’s being exploited today, though, the Congo’s rainforest will shrink to nearly half its size in the next fifty years.

The forests in DRC are amazingly diverse. As one of the few forest areas on the continent to have survived the ice age, they provide refuge for several large mammal species driven to extinction in other countries. Congo is known to have more than 11,000 species of plants, 450 mammals, 1,150 birds, 300 reptiles, and 200 amphibians, most of them protected by the rainforest.

In 2002, the government imposed a ban on new logging concessions. That ban was widely ignored as local officials often turned their heads in exchange for a few dollars while the timber companies cut as they pleased. The growing network of logging roads also opened up access to previously-ignored sections of the forest to local woodcutters, charcoal producers, and hunters. Today, according to Greenpeace, an area the size of Spain is under control of logging companies, some 30% of which was grabbed after the 2002 moratorium.

Last year, the World Bank, which has encouraged development of timber operations in the DRC, finally woke up to the results of their efforts and funded a six-month review of existing concessions to see if they conformed to basic standards. Of 156 deals examined, only 65 made the grade. The review found that most of the concessions adhere to no basic environmental standards and pay little or no tax to the central government.

In January, DRC’s Environment Minister Jose Endundo told Reuters that those who had failed to make the grade would have to stop logging within 48 hours. “Upon notification of the cancellation decision, the operator must immediately stop cutting timber,” he said. Considering the government’s record in enforcing the original ban, I’m sure the chainsaws immediately fell silent.

Why should we care about a forest that’s half a world away? Those forests are part of the cooling band of tropical forests around the equator that has been compared to a thermostat to moderate the earth’s temperature. It’s believed that deforestation is the second largest source of global emissions of CO2, the culprit behind global warming. Economist Sir Nicholas Stern says halting deforestation is the single most cost-effective way to fight climate change.

Halting deforestation doesn’t mean letting people starve so trees can grow. Modern forest management techniques allow for harvesting of timber and use of the land for economically-advantageous activities while ensuring that the forest has a chance to rejuvenate itself. Millions of jobs can be created from not just logging operations but downstream processing and value-adding manufacturing of wood products. That approach to forestry management is possible only when timber companies are monitored and laws are enforced.

Any encouragement we can give Congo to protect and manage its tropical rainforest will pay off for the entire world.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

UN Talks While Congo Suffers

April 20, 2009

The UN Security Council met recently to discuss the situation in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the civilian population bears the brunt of the fighting between rebel groups including the FDLR, various Mai Mai militia, and the LRA and the Congolese army (FARDC) operating with the Rwandan and Ugandan armies. While joint operations were declared successful by the governments involved and the UN hailed the strides toward peace, the people of the region continue to suffer at the hands of all the combatants.

Human Rights Watch reports that the FLDR killed, raped, and kidnapped hundreds of civilians during and after the joint Congo-Rwanda military campaign in North Kivu earlier this year. Among the atrocities reported, the HRW report cites:

As Rwandan and Congolese coalition forces advanced toward the FDLR’s former headquarters at Kibua, in Ufamandu, North Kivu, the FDLR abducted scores of local residents from neighboring villages and took them to their camp, apparently intending to use them as human shields against the impending attack. Witnesses said that when coalition forces attacked Kibua on January 27, the trapped civilians tried to flee. The FDLR hacked many civilians to death and others died in the crossfire.

One witness at Kibua saw FDLR combatants kill at least seven people, including a pregnant woman, whose womb was slit open. Another saw an FDLR combatant batter a 10-year-old girl to death against a brick wall.

The FDLR warned in a letter to the governor of South Kivu that civilians who supported the government forces would be considered combatants and slaughtered. The Congolese army announced after the withdrawal of Rwandan forces from North Kivu that the campaign would now turn to South Kivu.

“The FDLR have a very ugly past, but we haven’t seen this level of violence in years,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher in the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “We’ve documented many abuses by FDLR forces, but these are killings of ghastly proportions.”

But the FDLR isn’t the only group to commit atrocities. HRW said many rapes and assaults on civilians by Rwandan troops were reported by civilians fleeing the fighting as well.

The aid agency Oxfam, quotes UN figures that say that since mid-January, when Congolese and Rwandan troops attacked the FDLR, another 250,000 civilians have been newly displaced in the provinces of North and South Kivu. Rwandan troops withdrew from the DRC at the end of February, but the Congolese army continues to pursue the FDLR in South Kivu. Meanwhile, FDLR units have reoccupied the territories they fled during the joint campaign.

The situation in the north is no better, according to Oxfam. In Haut Uélé, the Ugandan rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army, has displaced nearly 200,000 people since December, in part out of retaliation for a Ugandan military offensive against the group. Ugandan troops withdrew last month, having accomplished little except to destroy the lives of thousands of Congolese.

Marcel Stoessel, Head of Oxfam in the DRC said:

“The war is far from over for ordinary Congolese. These terrible human tragedies are happening in remote areas far away from television cameras, but this does not make the suffering less real for those concerned.

“Homes and shops are being looted and ransacked, women and girls are being raped, and civilians are being forced to flee, many for the third or fourth time. We are helping them pick up the pieces by increasing our emergency work. It is tragic to see Congo’s civilians caught up in this awful violence yet again.”

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council meets today to talk about the situation. Last year, they promised an additional 3,000 troops to aid the 17,000 blue helmets already in the Congo protect the civilian population. Not only have none of those additional troops arrived, there have been no reports that they are even en route.

No one expects much from the additional troops anyway. The original Security Council mandate called for UN troops to protect UN relief operations and Congolese civilians, but their record has been dismal. Civilian casualties in the eastern provinces continue to mount and the epidemic of terror rape continues to destroy the lives of hundreds of women and their families.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Does Congo Matter To You?

April 18, 2009

With the rising howl of protest over the conflicts causing the humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s easy for us to forget that there are other, very important reasons we should all be concerned about what happens in Congo. I briefly spoke about “Why Congo Matters” at the 18th Annual Westchester Library System Book & Author Luncheon.

You can hear my remarks in an mp3 file at

As you can tell by the stillness of the room while I spoke and the applause following, the response was very gratifying. Many of the more than 200 audience members approached me afterward to express surprise, not just at the atrocities that have gone unchecked for fifteen years but at the potential impact the DRC could have on Africa and the world if it were a peaceful, stable nation.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

“Dead Aid” Review Sparks Exchange

April 12, 2009

My review of Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo’s provocative book about the failures of aid in Africa, has drawn comments from several places. One of the more interesting exchanges was with “An American in Kathmandu” that occurred on my blog on Daily Kos. The exchange began with a quote from my review:

I also fail to see how corrupt leaders and their minions will be any less likely to steal funds from private lenders than they are from the World Bank. Perhaps my most significant objection, though is when Moyo says the developing nations will be better served paying ten percent interest (the rate she quotes for emerging market debt in 2007) than the 0.75% they are charged by the World Bank. How does that work to anyone’s advantage other than the investment bankers?

“American in Kathmandu” wrote:

Exactly. So what to do? Just walk away? That’s hard to do in the face of the kinds of human suffering that you see. And there are some successes. Sometimes two steps forward and one back. Sometimes the other way around, depressingly. Sometimes it’s in one sector, or one district, or simply for a few thousand people before the good policies are reversed.

I don’t think there are easy solutions, but I do want to grapple for what the harder answers might be.

My response:

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to Africa’s economic problems. As you know, every country is different, every situation unique. In general, though, I rather admire the Chinese approach similar to the deal being negotiated now in the DRC: we’ll build you a railroad; you give us rights to develop these mines. Ignoring the way they treat their workers (for the sake of this argument), such a deal pretty much gives everybody what they want without a layer of ideology. Local companies and/or labor do much of the work on both the project and the mines, the government gets revenue from the mines in the form of royalties and taxes, and the Chinese get a source of minerals for their industries. Such deals don’t have to be for extractive industries, either; they can cover manufacturing, agricultural, or even service industries where direct foreign investment (not government-to-government aid) makes sense. Of course, there are several miles of hurdles to be jumped to get to these deals and make them fair, etc., but they are doable. They are also only one of a number of ways to approach the development dilemma.

Which brought this reply from “American in Kathmandu”…

China’s doing a lot of this in Africa now, the downside though, is that as you say, with the ideology removed, it really becomes about pure self-interest for China. Thus very little concern with environmental sustainability and social impact – e.g., the way everyone didn’t like that institutions like the World Bank used to behave time 100. There’s quite a lot of emphasis being put on public-private partnerships these days, including on models like what China is doing on such a massive scale now across Africa, but it also raises issues about who owns things – water resources, the best agricultural land, etc., being big concerns.

It’s an approach that should be considered – but at the same time, fraught with difficulties about how you avoid the same “colonialistic” seizing of things of value in the global South by outsiders with very little concern for the sustainability and impact on the average citizen in those countries, with the deals being approved by an often corrupt and undemocratic ruling elite.

My response was:

What public-private partnerships need in Africa is the element that’s sorely missing in opaque societies like the kleptocracies that are the norm: rule of law. If there is a fair commercial code and other body of law, an independent judiciary to enforce it, and a transparent process for awarding of contracts for development, the rights of the people of the nations involved can be protected along with their interests in the land and other resources being developed. Every party, be they the governments of China and the DRC, multinationals like Freeport McMoRan, or the World Bank, operates in its own self-interest; the rule of law makes sure the people don’t get trampled in the process. Private developers aren’t evil, they just need to be controlled for the interests of the nation, not the kleptocrats. A company that provides capital to develop a resource that builds jobs for the country and spawns ancillary supporting industries and infrastructure can also pay substantial taxes and royalties, which is a good thing as long as they go into the public coffers and not into Swiss bank accounts. The rule of law is necessary to make that happen.

“American in Kathmandu” replied “I agree the rule of law is critically important.”

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Fight Over Congo Minerals

April 9, 2009

Journalist Rima Abdelkader wrote a well-informed piece about the role of illicit minerals in fueling the conflict in Congo. I added these comments to her article on the Huffington Post:

While demanding that electronics manufacturers take responsibility for their supply chain is a commendable approach, there are other culprits whose actions contribute more directly to the atrocities in eastern Congo. One is Rwanda, which exports coltan even though it has no known mines within its borders. Paul Kagame’s government says it is working on source accreditation that will show where it gets the mineral and provide the type of supply chain audit demanded by the Enough Project and others (as is the DRC), but so far the promises are mere words. Another pressure point are business interests within the DRC itself. Not every villain in this story is a western multinational conglomerate–much of the illicit revenue from cassiterite, gold, and coltan flows right to Congolese individuals who back the rogue militias (and even units of the FARDC) who control many of the mines. Then there are the leaders of the FDLR, the remnants of the Hutu Interahamwe vilified for their role in ongoing conflict in the Kivus. Those criminals live a life of ease in Germany, France, and Belgium enjoying the profits from the mines their troops control in the Congo.

As attorney and activist Joseph Mbangu pointed out, the fight against violence in the DRC is one that must be fought on many fronts. Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Speaking About Congo

April 6, 2009

WLSI am very pleased to be one of four authors on the program at the 18th Annual Westchester Library System Book and Author Luncheon, April 16. I’ll be speaking about Heart of Diamonds, my thriller about diamond smuggling in the Congo, as well as about the current humanitarian crisis in the country.

Also appearing on the program will be Hallie Ephron, author of Never Tell A Lie, a tale about what we know and don’t know about the people in our lives. Marek Fuchs, another local author (he lives in Hastings, NY), will be talking about A Cold-Blooded Business, his true crime story of how to get away with murder–literally. Multiple-award-winning author Laura Lippman will appear as well. Her latest novel, Life Sentences, is about a memorist who explores a story about a former classmate accused of a heinous crime.

The WLS Book & Author Luncheon is held annually during National Library Week to increase awareness of the many important contributions libraries make to their communities. I’ll also be talking about my role as a WLS trustee.

The luncheon is sponsored this year by Con Edison, Entergy, and the H.W. Wilson Foundation. Entergy Nuclear will receive the National Library Week Recognition Award for its continued support of the WLS and its mission to ensure that all Westchester County residents have seamless access to excellent library service.

The event will be held at Abigail Kirsch at Tappan Hill in Tarrytown, NY. Tickets are $75 for general admission and $100 for a Library Patron, which includes a journal listing and special invitation to an author reception at 11:15 AM. Proceeds from the luncheon are devoted to WLS advocacy efforts to raise awareness for the 38 public libraries who are members of the consortium in Westchester County. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 914-231-3226 or go to the Westchester Library System web site.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the